Cunliffe’s identity crisis

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In the NZ Herald last week, there was an article about John Key’s position on euthanasia. Key had been quizzed by Bob McCoskrie from Family First about a range of issues, one of which was euthanasia. John Key’s position was reported as follows:

Prime Minister John Key has signalled possible loosening of euthanasia laws, saying he would sympathise with “speeding up of the process” of death for a terminally ill patient.

He told Family First director Bob McCoskrie in a public interview at a forum in Auckland yesterday that euthanasia would be “a legitimate thing” to speed up death for a terminally ill patient who was in pain.

Now Labour MP Maryan Street had a private member’s bill in the ballot last year, the End of Life Choice Bill, aimed at legalising voluntary euthanasia. It was withdrawn so that it wouldn’t be an election year distraction, should it be drawn from the ballot. At the time of its withdrawal, David Cunliffe refused to reveal his personal stance on legalising euthanasia. He stated:

“I have a personal view, but given my current responsibilities I’m going to reserve that until my caucus has an opportunity to discuss it.”

That was back in mid-October 2013. Evidently, Labour’s caucus still hasn’t had an opportunity to discuss the issue, for when the Herald asked Cunliffe for his view last week he “declined to comment on the issue yesterday and Ms Street did not return calls”.

It struck me as symptomatic of Cunliffe’s leadership problems – that he doesn’t seem to want to commit to a position until he’s had some polling done on the issue; that you never really know what David Cunliffe actually thinks or believes.

Euthanasia is just one example. Last month there was the question of whether Cunliffe would send troops to Iraq, if the US were to return there. On Newstalk ZB, on 13 June, Cunliffe’s position was less than firm – it would depend on the circumstances; we won’t hypothesise without specific facts; it would rely on the position taken by the UN and our partners; nothing can be ruled in or out. By 16 June, the weekend having passed, Cunliffe had a fresh position:

“The Labour government I lead would not contribute combat troops to Iraq under any foreseeable circumstances.”

As Idiot/Savant at No Right Turn wrote at the time, “You shouldn’t need a focus group to find your spine”.

During the Clark years, I’d always thought that Cunliffe was on the right of the Labour Party. But then suddenly, when it suited him, there he was on the left, talking tax hikes and Socialist Red. To me it didn’t ring true. It seemed like an act, although it certainly won over the Labour membership and the unions. At the time, all three leadership candidates – Cunliffe, Robertson and Jones – all appeared to have learned from the Republican and Democrat primary races in the US, where prospective presidential candidates have made an art form out of lurching to the edges of the bell curve to gain the support of the party activists, before tacking back to the centre to appeal to the independents.

Now, true to form, Cunliffe is indeed working his way back to the centre. There’s nothing Socialist Red about the Labour Party’s recent policy announcements. They’re designed to appeal to the centre, to say to swing voters, “Don’t worry, you can safely vote National out without fear of sudden change. We’ll keep the ship steady, but we’ll just do it better than National.”

But that’s where Cunliffe’s problems lie. If there’s no major policy differentiation that strikes a chord with voters, it becomes an issue of which political face voters prefer. If the ship sails on regardless, do voters want Key or Cunliffe at the helm? And if no one knows what Cunliffe actually believes, if they feel that he’s little more than a political chameleon in a suit, then they’ll stick with the guy that they know – John Key.

Perhaps the last word should be given to John Tamihere, from Claire Trevett’s ongoing biography of Cunliffe in the Herald:

“He’s an extraordinarily talented chap but you never get to see the real David. You get to see the David that he thinks you want to see. And that’s his problem.”



  1. Frankly erudite, I don’t think John Tamihere knows sh- – about David Cunliffe. He (Tamihere) was not welcomed back into the Labour Party which Cunliffe now leads – so its inevitable that his nasty little green eye is showing up in his negative comments. And I don’t know why Trevitt went to him for comment – there are many more, more able people than JT to comment on DC ……. except I suppose Trevitt was wanting the worst possible “look” to her story about DC.

  2. I think that you are being naive about politicians. Who they are as politicians is as much if not more about their role as it is about there personal beliefs.

    Don’t really know about other ‘left’ activists, but the reason that I voted for David Cunliffe was because he was more competent at being a politician than his predecessor and his competition.

    To tell the truth I really have that much interest in where politicians own views lie. The position itself constrains what they can and cannot do.

    For instance Helen Clark personally was well to the left of my position for the entire time that I was doing volunteer work for her. However her performance as PM was pretty damn close to being slightly left of my views because that was what the role required. David Cunliffe in his ministerial roles was in the ‘hard’ portfolios like finance, immigration, health, etc. So he appeared to be ‘right’. He is now leader of the opposition and that constrains what he can do.

    I judge politicians for two things. Their competence at the skills required for the task from baby-kissing to being a minister and everything between, and their ability to have a long term vision of where they want to try to nudge the behemoths of government and society towards. They will seldom express the latter except in general terms because they know that it takes decades to do safely.

    I don’t trust fools who wear their programme on their sleeves or promise fast action because it is simply unrealistic.

    I also don’t trust those who don’t take the time to acquire the skills to do the job successfully – and that includes dilettantes like John Key. He has been marked by his ability to go nowhere in particular.

    1. Naive? Not at all. I’m fully aware that when John Key or Russel Norman or Laila Harre or [insert name here] appears on the television and tells me their view about this, that or the other, it’s a redacted, sanitised comment, generally designed to ensure later wriggle room and to keep onside those who are likely to vote for them. Hell, just look at what various National politicians have been caught saying privately to party activists when they didn’t realise anyone was recording…

      However, I can usually believe that the publicly expressed views of most senior politicians are in some way aligned with their actual beliefs. I know that Maurice Williamson and Jamie-Lee Ross are to the right of the National Party, just like I know who the more pro-union MPs are in Labour.

      The problem that Cunliffe has is that the masses have no idea who he is, and don’t trust him. Having moved to Gisborne just a year and a half ago, most of the people I know here have no idea at all about my interest in politics, nor that I write this blog. When politics does get raised, most centrist sort of people tell me that they don’t particularly want National for a third term, but that they really don’t trust Cunliffe in the slightest. They don’t believe that he believes anything that comes out of his mouth.

      How much that’s due to media representation and how much due to Cunliffe himself can be debated. I’ve provided two examples that immediately sprang to mind for me that seemed representative of Cunliffe’s problem. They may be minor examples to the general public, but it all feeds in to the narrative that Cunliffe now has to overcome.

      Like you, I supported Cunliffe to succeed Shearer, partly because he seemed rather more politically competent than Jones or Robertson, and partly because Robertson is horribly uninspirational, while Jones was a piece of unexploded ordinance, dangerous to himself and everyone around him.

      Cunliffe is a highly intelligent individual and he can be a great performer on the right day. But ever since he became leader, he’s been guilty of over-thinking what his personal viewpoint on any given issue should be. He needs to back himself to say, for example, what his personal viewpoint on euthanasia is, but why it’s a conscience issue for the Labour Party. People don’t like it when someone looks scared to give their personal viewpoint, just in case you don’t like them.

      Very nice line about John Key, by the way. “[M]arked by his ability to go nowhere in particular” – I might have to steal it at some point…

      1. Oh I’d agree with that. However I suspect that is as much of a confidence in the role issue as anything else.

        He simply hasn’t had enough time in the role to get particularly comfortable with it, and thereby stating what his opinion is. And there is a *significiant* escalation from minister or contender for the leader role and actually being in it. The penalty for making missteps is immense. Everyone I have ever seen go into the position has to try to ease into it.

        It isn’t uncommon. Helen Clark was exactly the same reaction in 1994/5. Key was noted for his ability to never say anything much about his position or even his party policies in 2006/7/8, he preferred to talk about Helen instead. You can see that all through the posts and comments on this site in 2007/8 where he was known as “slippery” for a reason.

        David Cunliffe has effectively been in this role for about what? 8 months? Including xmas. He is getting a lot better but has heightened scrutiny from media to highlight the gaffs. But really the problem is that he didn’t get the role in 2012.

        I suspect that he will do pretty damn well in the debates. But we can’t count on that. Key is pretty good at those as well.

        But the problem for National and Key is that while there are a lot of people who like and trust him, there are just as many who actively detest him. It ain’t going to be enough to carry National over the line. In the meantime Joyce’s policies towards possible coalition partners has left National with a few dry corpses of no use and possibly NZ First who National vilified in 2008 to the point that going in coalition with them will cause many of both parties supporters to choke. Of course there are the conservatives….

        Realistically this is going to be a conflict of blocs this election. National vs the rest and NZF thrown in a wild card.

        An interesting election.

  3. I agree with Iprent. I wanted DC to be leader even though I wasn’t a member of the LP and couldn’t vote. My reasons for this are that he is highly intelligent, highly competent and had a track record of getting things done as a minister. His background in business and as a diplomat are helpful too. JK is so obviously out of his depth on issues like the Malaysian High Commission staff member who used diplomatic immunity to escape prosecution.

    I don’t know what this obsession is about “knowing the real David”. He’s a politician for god sake, not our best friend. Wanting to know “the real DC” seems like naval gazing to me. For me its 1. Is he competent 2. Is developing coherent policy that is helpful to our country and its people’s future. 3. Can he articulate his thoughts and does he seem to know what he’s talking about when answering questions on a broad range of issues? I can answer yes to those three. He is also pretty close to the left where I position myself.

    My take on it is that he is genuine. Anyone who goes to the trouble of learning Te Reo has to be in my opinion.

    I think he will make one of the best PM’s NZ has ever had.

  4. The choice isn’t between Cunliffe and Key. If you don’t think Labour is left enough the choice is between Cunliffe and Norman/Turei and Harre. This is MMP.

    1. Sure, but my point isn’t that Labour isn’t left enough. My point is that Labour needs to snare a bunch of voters who went with National in 2011. Those voters aren’t particularly interested in going to Norman/Turei or Harre. They’re deciding which major party leader they want as PM, and they don’t trust Cunliffe (see also my comment to lprent above).

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